4. Extending Cesar Azpilicueta’s prime
One slightly terrifying aspect of Chelsea’s recent struggles was the painfully obvious fact that Cesar Azpilicueta looked a step slow. The one-on-one defending wasn’t as sharp as it had been, the runs forward weren’t as blistering and every decision seemed to happen a split-second too late. Fortunately, the meteoric rise of Reece James overshadowed the slow decline of Azpilicueta, but the performances of both players made it seem like that transition was all but finalized and there would be no way back for the Spaniard.
That said, Azpilicueta might have found new life under Tuchel. Ironically, that new life looks a lot like his old life, the life he had under Antonio Conte.
Chelsea’s romp to the 2016/17 Premier League title with Conte was largely due to the efficacy of a back three that seemed capable of handling any attacking threat that came its way. While Gary Cahill and David Luiz were reasonable fits at the left and center spots, Conte elected to play Azpilicueta as the right centerback. To no one’s surprise, he immediately morphed into a world class centerback.
Now, Azpilicueta looks set to reprise that role at a point in his career where it might be the best way for him to stay at the very top level. Tuchel has said as much, referencing the success under Conte as a reason for returning to the back three and wingbacks. Azpilicueta’s flagging pace and agility might diminish his talents as an out-and-out fullback, but in the realm of centerbacks, his traits are still elite. Give him a bit of extra help out wide in the form of James or Hudson-Odoi at wingback, and that area of the field should be locked down defensively.
Against Burnley, that defensive solidity wasn’t really in question, as the Clarets didn’t ask many questions of Chelsea’s back line. That said, the energy Azpilicueta saved by not spending the entire match bombing up and down the right flank gave him the energy to make a 100-yard sprint forward to eventually hammer home a side-footed strike to open the scoring before halftime. It was a bit like Sheffield United’s overlapping centerbacks, but more fun and successful.
This new evolution of Azpilicueta probably won’t be much of a goal threat, and you’d expect his assist numbers to drop off too, but a long-term move towards being an athletically overqualified centerback could keep him in Chelsea’s starting XI for several years to come. A manager’s job is to get his best players on the pitch together and make it work. Azpilicueta is still one of the Blues’ best players, and Tuchel might have found the perfect way to keep his captain firmly in the line-up going forward.
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